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My Favorite Female Catholic

....Saint, Blessed/Venerable, or historic Catholic figure

"As you know, the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and in the course of the centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man. But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling." Pope Paul VI, Address to Women at the Closing of the Second Vatican Council, December 8, 1965


Susan Rich

My close and personal relationship with The Sisters of The Holy Family, a religious order of African American sisters located in New Orleans, La simplified my choice of who my favorite Catholic female is.  The foundress of this religious order of African American sisters, Venerable Henriette Delille, is my favorite Catholic female.

Born in 1813, Henriette Delille was born a free woman of color in New Orleans, La.   Born during a period, where “placage” was socially acceptable, many free women of color engaged in this social system as an opportunity to have a better life.  A system which was deemed acceptable and worthy by Henriette’s mother, also a free woman of color.  However, Henriette rejected this status of being a mistress to wealthy white men.  However, given all of the circumstances of racist practices during that historical period of time which provided no rights to African Americans, Henriette chose to devote her life to God. Her love for God led Henriette and two of her friends to knock on many doors to join other religious women.  Unfortunately, Henriette’s status as a free woman of color did not open any doors for her religious calling.  Henriette’s calling to minister to African slaves upon their arrival into the port of New Orleans allowed her to serve them and teach them about God.  She was the Godmother to thousands of slaves as she also participated in their baptisms. Her love and devotion to God was demonstrated through the care that she provided to the sick and the elderly. Venerable Delille continued to spend most of her time teaching African children how to read and write even during the worst of times. Henriette and two of her friends, Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles decided to form a religious order for free women of color.  In 1836, they formed the Sisters of The Presentation. All of their works throughout New Orleans were praised by so many. Yet, their numerous attempts to be officially recognized as a religious order by the Church was denied.

At the early age of 24, Henriette declared her love and life to God with this simple phrase, “Je Crois en Dieu. J’ espere en Dieu. J’aime. Je veaux vivre et mourir pour Dieu.”  “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”  This began Henriette’s spiritual and evangelical journey towards the foundation of the Sisters of the Holy Family.  After 1837, the Sisters continued to serve as godmothers and witnesses to the marriages of slaves and free people of color.  Years later in 1851, Henriette Delille used her inheritance to purchase a house for the community.  The sisters continued to care for the elderly, the poor, and the sick. Following a devastating plague which afflicted  many people throughout the city of New Orleans, the few sisters spent most of their time caring for the sick and dying.  It was after this plague that this group of holy women would now be recognized as a religious order of sisters.  After many years, praying, living and ministering “as Sisters”, they were finally permitted to take vows in St. Augustine Church in 1852.  It was at this time when they were officially recognized as “The Sisters of The Holy Family”. The Sisters continued to visit and minister to slave families and taught free girls of color.  Henriette opened the first nursing home for the elderly, later called the Lafon Nursing Home, which is the oldest Catholic nursing home in the country. After her  many works with the sisters, Henriette Delille died on November 17, 1862 of tuberculosis at the age of 50.  Today, Henriette’s work continues with the Sisters of the Holy Family working in several states.  Venerable Henriette Delille is the first Unites States native-born African American whose cause for canonization has been opened by the Catholic Church.  In 1989, Henriette was declared Servant of God by Pope John Paul II.  She was later declared Venerable in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.  There are currently two favors before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints which have been presented to the Holy Father for the first miracle required for beatification.  If positive, Henriette will be declared blessed and the Beatification Ceremony will take place in New Orleans, LA.  Another miracle will be needed for sainthood.

Venerable Henriette Delille holds a special place in my heart as my favorite Catholic female for various reasons.  My long acquaintance with The Sisters of the Holy Family, specifically with Sr. Sylvia Thibodeaux, former Congregational Superior, allowed me to become acquainted with their foundress’ story.  I had the fortunate opportunity to spend several summers with Sr. Sylvia as she often came to Cape Cod to visit my family. She was also invited by the Association of Boston Urban Sisters to work with the urban Catholic schools in Roxbury Massachusetts in partnership with Harvard University’s School of Education.  Their primary purpose was to train teachers to affect changes in the urban schools.  Its main task was to identify leaders who would both represent the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the African American community. Sr. Sylvia, under the mentorship of my aunt, Dr. Patricia Goler, became the director of this project.  As a result and often confronted with much animosity, the urban Catholic schools underwent a restructuring.  Sr. Sylvia Thibodeaux was also instrumental in assisting me in addressing racial issues which I was confronted with during high school.  During this time I became familiar with the City of New Orleans when I attended my first National Black Catholic Congess, The Sisters of The Holy Family, and their foundress, Venerable Henriette Delille. After reading about Venerable Delille’s life and visiting New Orleans many times, it did not take long before I recognized Venerable Delille’s total devotion to God along with her many Corporal Works of Mercy.  When I was asked by Sr. Sylvia to establish a Friends of Delille Chapter in the Archdiocese of Newark, my response was one of excitement. I began to read further about the life of Henriette Delille and the sisters referred me to Fr. Stephen Fichter, Ph.D., Pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church, who had a personal connection to both New Orleans and Venerable Delille.  Fr. Stephen’s Grand Uncle, Fr. Joseph Fichter,S.J., a notable sociologist and Harvard scholar, was instrumental in the beginning works for Venerable Delille’s cause for sainthood.  Fr. Stephen’s willingness to serve as our Friends of Delille Chaplain has allowed the Friends to receive guidance relative to performing various works which mirror the corporal works of Venerable Delille.  Our Chapter is extremely grateful to Fr. Stephen for his generosity and guidance provided to our chapter.  Since our Chapter’s inception in 2016, our works have included feeding the homeless through Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless (MESH) at St. Peter Claver Church,  coordinating a pillow drive for Catholic Charities, collecting toy donations and partnering with National Angel Tree Ministry to provide Christmas gifts/toys to children of the incarcerated in partnership with Hackensack/Mountainside Hospital, Women’s Commission , and parishioners from Church of the Presentation (Upper Saddle River) Holy Name of Jesus Church (East Orange) Our Lady of Mount Carmel/St. Theresa of Calcutta (Montclair) and St. Peter Claver Church (Montclair), activities for Isaiah’s House in East Orange, Christmas gifts for Montclair elderly, participating in Montclair’s African American Heritage Day Parade, collecting school supplies and back pack drive for children of St. Peter & Paul School in St. Thomas, USVI, back pack drive for Little Treasures Center for elementary students, spreading Venerable Delille’s story through various mediums in churches in New Jersey and abroad, assisting at Archdiocese of Newark’s Mercy House, and a recent initiative entitled “Friend of a Friend” Mentoring Program at Sacred Heart School in Jersey City which began in November 2018.  As I pray daily for the intercession of Venerable Henriette Delille, I also pray for her cause towards sainthood as Venerable Henriette Delille has certainly lived a life of holiness and serves as a true model for all of us who aspire to lead a holy life!

"I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”

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